More than a little, less than a lot

December 31, 2012
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One of the really bizarre things to watch in drug policy — the arguments over how one expresses:

  1. the amount that a policy will hurt Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and
  2. the amount of prison population directly related to marijuana/possession/non-violent drug offenses.

Everyone seems to agree that these are both impossible to measure with certainty, and additionally, there are all sorts of broadly defined issues regarding how you interpret the parameters.

For example, with the Drug-Trafficking-Organizations, you could simply be talking about the amount of income that would be reduced. Or, you could be looking at how the change in the market would change the activities of the DTOs (going more into kidnapping and other non-consensual crime areas, etc.), or you could look at the change in the attractiveness for new players to enter the market.

For prison populations, such things as “possession” and “non-violent” can be difficult to define. Additionally, it matters whether you’re talking about merely identifying the population currently incarcerated, or how a change in laws would affect future incarceration rates overall (which could be remarkably different).

Given all this, it boggles the mind how some people get outraged over the use of non-quantitatively specific descriptors like “explosion” or “devastating.”

In Polarization, denial, and the cannabis debate, check out Kleiman’s reaction to the description of something as being potentially “devastating.”

For example, see Alejandro Hope’s comment on the thread below: apparently Tim Dickinson converted his statement that pot legalization would cost the Mexican DTOs some revenue but that “the effect would not be devastating” into the claim that it would be “a devastating blow.” Alejandro comments: “in this specific case, denial veers very close to falsification.” I’m not sure “falsification” is the right diagnosis; I’d put it down to self-delusion on the part of Dickinson and his editors. “A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

Now check out this article:

US drug legislation to slow Mexico violence?

One of the authors of the report, Alejandro Hope wrote in a clarification of his study that while the lost revenue depends on certain conditions in the US, the impact could be significant.

“We do think that losing marijuana revenues could have a transformative impact on the Mexican drug trafficking industry, over and beyond the direct potential reduction of marijuana export income.”

Other analysts, however, aren’t sure the new policies will put a dent in Mexican drug cartel revenue.

“Marijuana is not that profitable. Their big money comes from cocaine. They also make a lot of money from other things. This is a pinprick in terms of the Mexican cartels,” says Keith Humphreys, a former senior White House Policy Adviser on the drug trade.

Pinprick?

So, the expert says that the effect would be “significant” and “transformative,” but Kleiman is outraged that someone says “devastating,” so I can’t wait to see what he has to say about Humphreys’ “pinprick” — because certainly significant and transformative must be closer to devastating than to pinpricking. But then again, if you hate needles, a pinprick could be devastating, I guess.

You see, these are all just subjective descriptives, because we don’t and can’t know the actual numbers. So it seems pretty strange to jealously guard a particular subjectively evaluated descriptive.

The point, of course, that we in the reform community make, is that legalization will have a strong negative effect on the ability of the drug trafficking organizations to continue to exist as they have. That’s certainly true. The exact degree of this is unknowable, and it is not necessary to know that degree with certainty in order to make a reasoned judgement that this is another valid reason to support legalization.

In The truthiness of ‘The House I Live In’, Mark Kleiman takes offense with Eugene Jarecki’s description of the prison problem and with Andrew Cohen’s six-question interview with Jarecki (for not setting the record straight).

But the film strongly implies that the mass-incarceration problem consists mostly of non-violent drug dealers serving ludicrously long terms. False.

My understanding from reading the Cohen interview is that the points being made are:

  1. The drug war has been responsible for the explosion in incarceration. (True)
  2. Many of those incarcerated are non-violent offenders there for long terms. (True)

Of course, Jarecki was doing a film about putting a human face on those in prison, so he focused on individuals whose stories would resonate. That’s good filmmaking, not dishonesty.

See Lee Rosenberg’s piece for another look at how the wide picture is the important part of drug policy discussion rather than bickering over specific percentages of those incarcerated (which gets us nowhere).

Again, discussions about the war on drugs and policy have potential global incarceration impacts (both in a geographic and non-geographic sense). It’s about massive change in our entire justice system.

I’m sure that Mark will be pleased with Kevin Sabet’s tweet:

I agree w/ Kleiman that to say the US prison problem is bc of nonviolent drug users is false. Cohen should know better. http://t.co/xUUO4APD

I guess the fact that Cohen never said it is not a concern.

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Pete Guither is the editor of drugwarrant.com

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